Pull up images of Dublin and you are apt to see the elegant white Georgian squares and government buildings. Very lovely they are too. It’s something of a relief, though, to leave this behind for the red brick workaday buildings of the later nineteenth century.
One of those is the wholesale Fruit and Vegetable Market, which opened in 1892. It is a splendid building, obviously constructed with great civic pride, and, best of all, with delightful red brick (terracotta) fish, fruit, and vegetables adorning the arches that dominate the facade.
The Nineteenth-Century Covered Market Campaign
Everyone knows about the fine railway stations of the nineteenth century. For some reason though, although certain markets are famous such as La Boqueria in Barcelona or Borough Market in London draw attention, the near-global civic effort of the late nineteenth century to modernize food marketing by building fine iron and red brick covered markets is less well known. City after city replaced sprawling open air markets with covered markets, complete with running water and drains.
Here are just a few.
The Red Brick and Terracotta for the Dublin Fruit and Vegetable Market
Back to the Dublin Market. Where had these lovely terracotta fish, fruits and vegetables come from? I had hopes of somewhere in the Dublin area.
But no, they came from across the Irish Sea in Wales. There the small town of Ruabon turned out so much tile in the late nineteenth century that it became known as Terracottaopolis. Like a variety of other small towns in the region, the brickworks and furnaces turned out the building materials for the markets, schools, hospitals, railway stations, and piers that still dominate the nineteenth-century cities of the British Isles.
Bingo. I went to a red brick university, one of the British universities built in the late nineteenth century in cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, and (in my case) Bristol by civic fathers and business leaders who believed (rightly) that Oxbridge could offer neither enough places nor an appropriate education for a world transformed by the Industrial Revolution.
The Entrepreneurial Engineers of the Covered Markets
The factory that made them was probably one owned by Henry Dennis, a civil engineer from Bodmin in Cornwall.
Did the Dublin city fathers send over a list of the fish, fruit, and vegetables they wanted? Did the juxtaposition of the everyday (Brussels sprouts and herring) and the exotic (melons and lobsters) signal the variety, service, and sophistication of the market? Were the leeks (the symbol of Wales) a Welsh idea? Probably not, because they were commonly eaten in Ireland too. Who came up with this design anyway?
Reading about Henry Dennis’s life was like checking off the typical career of a British nineteenth-century entrepreneurial engineer, forerunner to today’s Silicon Valley types. Trained as a surveyor in an area with tin mines that had been worked since Roman times, like many other Cornish he moved overseas as the mines ceased to be profitable (hence the presence of Cornish pasties in the most unlikely places, a subject I return to frequently). He traveled to Spain, offered his skills to railroad and mine companies, and made a fortune. He came back to the British Isles, this time to Wales, center of the coal and slate industries. He managed a colliery, and eventually moved into the tile business.
Bingo again. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side managed a Welsh tile company (Godwin’s). We were told as children that he owned it but that was family wishful thinking. I still have a collection of his fancier decorated tiles on my desk.
The Fate of the Covered Markets
Now many of these markets are struggling. Parking is hard, people have moved to the suburbs. Supermarkets and big box stores draw crowds. Some have become tourist attractions, a future that is being debated, I understand, for Dublin’s market.
Red Brick Revisited
This is a wandering and personal post but it says a lot about why I find history so helpful.
Following the thread from terracotta fish on a Dublin market facade to changes in cities worldwide with industrialization and population growth, to the failure of the old agrarian order of Oxbridge (read landowners, clergy, and military to cope with this) to the initiatives taken by the cities themselves helps show how complex and how many players were involved in making the modern, urban food system that most of us are part of.
Following the thread also, as so often, me understand parts of my own life that I had always taken for granted as well as making the wider world a little more comprehensible.
I took these photos just over a year ago after the Dublin Gastronomy Symposium (highly recommended). A fellow symposiast, Jane Levi, and I spent a happy morning identifying the fish, fruits and vegetables. Thanks to Samantha McAuliffe of University College Dublin who insisted that the wholesale Fruit and Vegetable Market was worth a visit. Thanks to both and everyone else who made the visit to Dublin such a rewarding one.
Edit. Thanks to many of you for interesting comments.
From Mel Healy who lives just a few blocks from the Dublin Market.
“Dublin City Council did indeed have plans around 2006 to “upgrade” the market from “just” wholesalers to having food halls, restaurants, “artisan” this that and the other – and possibly relocating the wholesalers out of the city centre to “centres of distribution with direct access to national and regional routes”. Then about two years ago the project stalled and I’ve heard nothing new since.
Despite the gorgeous fish sculptures, most of the seafood moved out of the market many moons ago. Today it is to be found in individual wholesaler companies scattered across the city and at fishing ports such as Howth.
One of the most photographed statues in the city is of our most famous street hawker or fishmonger, Molly Malone, who may or may not have been a real person. The song of the same name (also known as “Cockles and Mussels” or “In Dublin’s Fair City”) is a sort of unofficial anthem for the city – but quite possibly like the fruit market it’s a Victorian invention; it may have been a variant or reworking of older ballads, but it became “set in stone” as a standard during the height of the music halls. There is a bronze figure in town of Molly with her cart and baskets, a bit kitsch but the tourists adore it. Locals nicknamed it The Tart With The Cart or The Trollop With The Scallops.
As for the fruit and veg, nowadays the wholesalers continue to supply a grassroots economy of individual street-sellers with their stalls – now anchored to areas of the city such as Moore Street and Camden Street, but not so many decades ago they also traded from prams everywhere – as well as supplying to restaurants and greengrocers. But this type of wholesale marketing must be shrinking as the supermarkets continue their onward march with more direct channels from the growers.
Finally – sorry to go on – re Peter’s comment about London’s much larger Smithfield Market, there are some great glimpses of its final years as a working market in Hitchcock’s penultimate film “Frenzy”. A warning, though: the film is one of Hitchcock’s most harrowing – and you’ll never look at a bag of spuds in the same way again.”
From Chef Paul Smith. “The English market in Cork is a thriving market in present day Ireland and was built in 1788 has lasted down the ages, through fire and recession..
The Market was created in 1788 by the Protestant or “English” corporation that controlled the city at that time. It was a new flagship municipal market located at the heart of the new commercial city centre.
When local government was reformed in 1840, and the representatives of the city’s Catholic, “Irish” majority took over, they established another covered food market, St. Peter’s Market (now the Bodega Bar on Cornmarket Street), which became known as the “Irish Market” to distinguish it from its older counterpart which remained associated with its English creators. It is thus that the name “English Market” dates from this era of transition. “In my opinion this is the best covered market in the UK and Ireland” – Rick Stein.”
Pat Crotty send a link to the debate about what to do with the Melbourne market.